Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reformism - or socialism? (2002)

From the March 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are two kinds of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about revolutionary change – indeed it may use reforms to oppose such change. The other kind cherishes the mistaken belief that successful reforms will somehow prepare the ground for revolution. Reforms are seen as necessary first steps on the long road to eventual revolution.
Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don't like confrontation. prefer to think only in the short term, and don't want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think (or fail to think) as you do.
Reformism is a most excellent strategy if you want only small changes in society, and are satisfied with what you get (which is usually substantially less than what you were promised). However, reformism is futile for two other groups of people: those who expect that capitalism can be reformed to operate in the interests of the majority, and those who believe that a programme of reforms will “win the workers for the revolution” and hence make a contribution to the achievement of socialism.
The idea that capitalism can be humanised and changed by a series of reforms is almost as old as the capitalist system itself. But reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. The motives for reforms may include anxiety to relieve suffering and keenness to promote well-being, but the measures have the effect of serving the system rather than meeting the needs of individuals or groups.
Examples of reforms serving capitalism over the last two centuries are not hard to find. The Poor Law of 1834 was a response to mass destitution as peasants were driven off the land – crime and the poor health of workers were expensive to the ruling class (incidentally, minimal “relief” pacified workers by removing their pauper status). The post-1945 Welfare State introduced measures of health and social security intended to raise workers' efficiency and thus make them more productive of profit for the capitalist class – poverty was re-organised, not abolished.
The role of hegemony – a powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through conventional education, the mass media, and a culture of consumption – is important in understanding how reformism, like all policies designed to sustain capitalism, is actually carried out by members of the working class (the roughly 98 percent of the population who are not capitalists). Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, they persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy”. Furthermore, one person's advocated reform is sometimes another person's preferred status quo. To Old Labour, nationalisation was a reform; to New Labour, at least some privatisations are a reform.
The kind of reformers who believe they are taking the first practical steps on the long road to eventual revolution are looking for quick results, which means they want as many people as possible to support their proposed reforms. Reformers often say to revolutionaries “Don't split the Left. We are all working for the same goal, so why don't you join us? We can get strength through unity.”
Revolutionaries must reject this appeal if they are to remain revolutionaries. Reformism is never a contribution to the achievement of socialism – it is a diversion of energies working for that goal. The offer of unity proposed by the reformer to the revolutionary is always a poisoned chalice: “Join us today to promote . . . .[small but achievable reform] and tomorrow we'll start the revolution together.” But of course tomorrow never comes.
Another line of thinking that presents itself as friendly to revolution but is really calculated to frustrate it is “the time is not yet ripe” argument. Consider this statement by R.Biel in his recent book The New Imperialism:
  “The organised left has itself opted for a mode of action which downplays (without completely rejecting) the idea of directly challenging the system… The left has had to retreat for a time from organising an alternative political economy, and is working instead on the terrain of capitalism” (emphasis added).
“Working on the terrain of capitalism” is a euphemism for reformism. There are two implications in what Biel is saying. One is that there was a time when the left – or at least part of it – was working for socialism. The other is that, since the retreat was only “for a time”, there will be a time in the future when working for socialism will come to the top of the agenda instead of being downplayed.
A further interesting question is why the left supposedly “has had to retreat” from something it never really did anyway, that is, work wholeheartedly for socialism. Were the arguments for capitalism so strong that its opponents were forced into retreat? More likely those of the reformers who claimed to be willing to become revolutionaries in the long run succumbed to the status-quo-preserving goodies that they saw within their grasp in the short run.
The New Statesman journal offers general support to New Labour's reforms, but to describe that support as lukewarm would be to exaggerate the heat. Its editorial of 25 September 1998 is worth quoting at length:
“The arguments for electing Labour governments have never been based wholly, or even mainly, on the likelihood of their bringing about equality or the abolition of poverty or any of the other traditional aims of social democracy. Within two or three years of taking office, Labour, more often than not, is blown off course and forced to introduce policies quite at variance with its original intentions, slashing, for example, the public services on which the poor depend. But Labour governments have usually nudged things in the right direction. The economic gains for the poor folk of Barnsley, Blackburn or Bootle may be scarcely measurable at the end of a period of Labour government but at least, for a year or two, their voices have counted in Whitehall and Westminster and, with luck, their children will be taught in slightly smaller classes or their local bus services will run a bit more frequently or their hospitals will be a bit less dilapidated.”
But, looking at New Labour's achievements so far in its second term of office, don't bank on even those small mercies. Such are the “benefits” offered by a reforming party, proud not to be revolutionary. Thank goodness a party was not elected that nudged things in the wrong direction!
Capitalism, like an old car, has developed many faults and always seems to be needing costly repairs and new parts. Isn't it about time we scrapped it and got something new? The analogy isn't a particularly good one – for one thing, replacing a car costs only money, while replacing a social system takes much thought and organisation – but at least it reminds us that things (whether cars or social systems) don't have to be patched up for ever.
Going directly for revolution, refusing to settle for anything less than the full monty of socialism, is a policy that will take time to bring results. Many people will have to be weaned off the superficial attractions of “achievable” reforms. But going for revolution isn't just a long-term policy – it is also a good short-term one. Faced with an electorate who refuse to vote for capitalism-supporting candidates, confronted by a majority who no longer believe “there is no alternative”, challenged by a growing socialist movement that says revolution is possible and shows how life and society could be so much better, what else can those who wish to support capitalism do than concede as much as possible, in effect to narrow the gap between the old and new systems?
Stan Parker

Greasy Pole: Attack Dog? Or Barking Mad? (2014)

The Greasy Pole column from the June 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Any Honourable member who came into the House through inheriting a seat left vacant by the retirement of an independent, blue-blooded Old Etonian will have devoted some thought to the best way of Making A Name For Themselves. Epsom and Ewell in the lushly arboreal county of Surrey has been palaeocrystic in its loyalty to the Conservative Party. Between 1978 and 2001 it was represented by Archibald Gavin Hamilton Kt PC who was knighted in 1994 and then eventually made a life peer in 2005 as Lord Hamilton of Epsom, of West Anstey in the County of Devon. At 6 feet 6 inches he was the tallest MP, an early recruit of the Conservative Monday Club and chairman of the 1922 Committee. Among his other junior posts was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And oh yes; he now plays bridge for the House of Lords team.

Hamilton's resignation left the Tories of Epsom and Ewell seeking a replacement. Among the hopefuls there was Chris Grayling – if they were prepared to overlook the embarrassing fact that he had once been a member of that chaotic spasm the Social Democratic Party. He had trodden the well-worn path of Cambridge, TV journalism, management consultancy and the obligatory candidacy in some impregnable fortress of the provincial Labour Party. He was chosen as the candidate and in the 2001 election he had a majority some way above 10,000. In the Commons he soon attracted attention with junior jobs in Transport, Work and Pensions and the Home office. Whatever else this experience offered him it was a valuable opportunity to establish a reputation – which the Tories badly needed then - for determined aggression.

That was a time when the Blair governments were persistently vulnerable to hostility from any ambitious predator and Grayling fitted this role well enough to earn himself the title of 'attack dog', undeterred by the fact that he would be subjected to the same treatment if the Tories were to get back into power. In 2005 he attacked Cherie and Tony Blair, and in 2007 Gordon Brown, for breaches of the ministerial code in their foreign travel. And among the most dramatically newsworthy, in 2005: 'I am astonished that Mr. Blunkett has broken the Ministerial Code on yet another occasion. This is getting beyond a joke' – which persuaded Blunkett to resign from a governmental post for the second time in a year. It all went a long way to solidify Grayling's standing as the Tories' attack dog, helping them back to their rightful place in power.

Grayling's appointment after the 2010 election as Minister of State for Employment encouraged him to turn his attention to other targets. For example those hordes of idle, manipulating layabouts who, rather than submit themselves to compliant exploitation, lived by dishonest claims for state benefits and so almost bled the City of London to extinction.

In 2007, during his time in opposition, Grayling had said that a problem for the next – presumably Tory – government was that the benefits system was causing 'billions of pounds' to be lost to fraudulent claims but in fact most of this was due to departmental errors so that less than £1 billion was in question. In another field there was the award of a lucrative contract to administer some 'Welfare-To-Work' schemes to Grayling's preference the firm Deloitte Ingeus after they had made a donation of nearly £28,000 to Grayling. And there was the matter of his expense claims, in which he spread the cost of extensive improvements in his flat in Pimlico over two years so that he could claim the full amount in total. As a whole these matters, together with many others of similar style, do not support any image of Grayling as a minister conforming to the same style of living and contributing as he seeks to impose on the rest of us.

In September 2012 Grayling was promoted in a reshuffle to join the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. This change was not universally welcome; in March 2010 he had almost brought about his own disappearance from the gaggle of aspiring promotion prospects by the protests greeting his approval of landlords choosing to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples. In what is known as the Criminal Justice System there were similar reservations for in August 2009 he had upset the police and local councillors when he likened the crime in Moss Side, Manchester to what was depicted in Baltimore by the American TV series The Wire as'urban war'. In fact there was little similarity between the two cities; the police said that gang-related shootings were down by 82 percent and the Manchester Evening News reported that there had been no such murders during the previous year –a pretty awful situation but nothing like as bad as Grayling alleged. There was also a distinct, strongly expressed, opposition to his appointment from the lawyers, still smarting from the cuts in legal aid payments, because they interpreted the fact that Grayling was the first Lord Chancellor without any legal qualifications as a message that the law was now 'negotiable'.

So there could be no surprise that Grayling turned his attention to the prison system and what goes on in it and what is expected of it. His policy was summed up by one of his staff as 'Offenders can't expect something for nothing any more'. And it turned out that 'something' included books mailed to prisoners by their family, which are now banned. One of the objectors to this restriction was Eric Allison, prison correspondent of The Guardian, who some years ago was released on licence from a life sentence. Allison ascribes his turning point to the opportunity to read, which separated him from the nearly 50 percent of prisoners who struggle with a reading age of or below that of an 11 year old: 'I suddenly thought where have you been all my life? I just devoured books'. It went on from there, over the years until he came out a changed man.

Can we expect anything as dramatic and impressive from our Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling? The attack dog . . ? Perhaps just one more thing of note: he is now known among his staff as Failing Grayling.